Devastating Critique of US Education Policies

Diane Ravitch has made another devastating critique of market-based education policies in the United States, many of which have been copied by the Gillard Government. Some key excerpts follow.

On George Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation
We have now had ten years of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that there has been very little change in the gaps between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, between black children and white children, between Hispanic children and white children.

Just this week, the federal government released the urban district test results and we could see that the gap remained as large as ever. After ten years of NCLB, the children at the bottom were still at the bottom. Those districts where poverty and racial segregation—such as Detroit and Washington, D.C.—are most concentrated had the lowest scores.

But wait, some of the districts tested by the federal government have been actually implementing the market-based reforms advocated by the corporate reformers: New York City, which has had mayoral control since 2002; Washington, D.C., which has had mayoral control since 2007; Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched market-based reforms in 2001; and Milwaukee, which has had vouchers since 1990.

Since the mayor took charge in 2002, New York City has enthusiastically imposed market-style reforms. It has more choice than any other major city—parents and students get to choose among 400 high schools, as well as more than 100 charter schools. All schools are given letter grades based on test scores. NYC spent $56 million on merit pay, then abandoned the program when it showed zero results. After nine years of market-based reforms, however, the achievement gap between black and white students is unchanged. On the federal tests, math scores are up but no more than in districts without market reforms. Eighth grade reading scores have been flat since 2003.

Which children do you think were left behind?

In Washington, D.C., there have been many claims in the media about sensational test score gains, but that’s not what you see on the latest federal tests. In fourth grade reading, the scores have been rising steadily since 2003, but not for all students. The scores of high-income students have gone up but the scores of black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students remain unchanged for the past four years. In eighth grade reading, scores are down for the past four years for black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students. And most importantly, the District of Columbia public school system has the largest achievement gap of any city in the nation between white and black students, a staggering 64 points in 4th grade, compared to an average of 30 points for all urban districts; and an equally staggering 58 points in eighth grade, compared to 28 points for all urban districts.

So whose children were left behind?

In Chicago, where Secretary Duncan’s reform program led to the closing of 100 neighborhood schools, only 18% of the new schools were judged successful by the state of Illinois. On the 4

NAEP for cities, Chicago continues to be one of the lowest performing in the nation. Since 2003, black and Hispanic students have seen no improvement in their reading scores in fourth grade. In eighth grade reading, there have been no gains whatever for black students or low income students since federal testing began in 2002, and no gains for Hispanic students since 2005. According to the latest research, the black-white achievement gap is larger now in Chicago than when the reforms began.

On the education policies of the billionaires club
Let’s be clear about what NCLB has really accomplished: It has convinced the media and major philanthropies and Wall Street hedge fund managers that American public education is a failure and that radical solutions are required. The philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires have some ideas about how to change American education. They aren’t teachers but they think they know how to fix the schools.

Their ideas boil down to this strategy: NCLB failed because we didn’t use enough carrots and sticks. They say that schools should operate like businesses, because the free market is more efficient than government. So these reformers—I call them corporate reformers—advocate market-based reforms. They say that states must hand public schools over to private management because the private sector will be more successful than the public sector. They say that teachers will work harder if they get bonuses when test scores go up. They say that teachers should have no job protections because workers in the private sector don’t have job protections, not even the right to a hearing. They say that if schools have low scores, they should be closed and replaced by new schools, just like a chain store—a burger franchise or a shoe store—would be closed if it didn’t make a profit; or the entire staff should be fired and replaced by new staff. They say that the quality of teachers should be judged based on whether their students’ scores go up or down.

The Tea Party governors embraced this narrative and took it to the next level. They used their sweeping victories in 2010 to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and to slash spending on public education, even as they demanded more funding for charters and vouchers.

The mayor of New York City said a week ago that if he had the power to do it, he would fire half the city’s teachers, double the pay of those that remained, and double class size. He said when he went to school, he was in a large class and he turned out OK. He didn’t mention that his daughters went to schools where the class size was 12. My youngest grandchild attends kindergarten in a Brooklyn public school. He has a class size of 24. Under the mayor’s plan, his teacher would have a class of 48. None of them would get any individual attention. I don’t see this as progress, particularly because the evidence is clear and strong that minority children benefit most when class sizes are reduced below 20 in a classroom.

So today we see Wall Street hedge funders and billionaires saying that they are leading the civil rights movement of our time. I have trouble imagining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walking arm in arm with billionaires in a crusade to privatize control of public education. Dr. King understood that social movements need a mass base, and that they are not based in Wall Street. He knew that the civil rights movement depended on its moral authority as well as its ability to mobilize poor and working people in coalition with labor unions. He had no desire to privatize. He wanted to make private interests bow to the demands of the public interest. As I watch rightwing politicians doing their best to destroy the public sector unions, I recall that Dr. King was assassinated at the very time that he was fighting to organize the sanitation workers of Memphis. How dare they invoke his legacy to attack public education and public sector workers!

On markets in education
We now know that none of the current carrot-and-stick policies will shrink the gap. We know it because they have been tried for 10 years and they haven’t worked. Structural changes like charters and vouchers overall will not make a difference. Merit pay makes no difference. Judging teachers by test scores demoralizes teachers and will lead to narrowing of the curriculum—so that the districts where children have the lowest scores will have more time for test preparation and less time for the arts, less time for history or civics, less time for science, less time for physical education. The children who need a great education the most will get the least.

In the free market, there are a few winners and a lot of losers. Some corporate reformers today advocate that schools should be run like a stock portfolio: Keep the winners and sell the losers. Close schools where the students have low scores and open new ones. But this doesn’t help the students who are struggling. No student learns better because his school was closed; closing schools does not reduce the achievement gap. Poor kids get bounced from school to school. No one wants the ones with low scores because they threaten the reputation and survival of the school.

The goal of our education system should not be competition but equality of educational opportunity.

On what should be done
So what can we do? First, we should speak out when politicians say “there is no more money.” There is money to do what we want to do. There is money to fight wars in the Middle East. There is enough money to give big corporate cuts. There is enough money for 1% of this nation to live lives of splendor. Why is there not enough money to provide the basic public services that every child needs?

•Every pregnant woman should have good pre-natal care and nutrition so that her child is born healthy. One of three children born to women who do not get good prenatal care will have disabilities that are preventable. That will cost society far more than providing these women with prenatal care.
•Every child should have the medical attention and nutrition that they need to grow up healthy.
•Every child should have high-quality early childhood education.
•Every school should have experienced teachers who are prepared to help all children learn.
•Every teacher should have at least a masters degree.
•Every principal should be a master teacher, not a recruit from industry, the military, or the sports world.
•Every superintendent should be an experienced educator who understand teaching and learning and the needs of children.
•Every school should have a health clinic.
•Schools should collaborate with parents, the local community, civic leaders, and local business leaders to support the needs of children.
•Every school should have a full and balanced curriculum, with the arts, sciences, history, civics, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, and physical education.
•Every child should have time and space to play.

We must stop investing in testing, accountability, and consultants and start investing in children.

Do we want to be a decent society or a decadent society? Do we want to nurture, protect and inspire all of our children? Do we want children who are leaders or followers? Do we want to make sure that this generation of young people is prepared to sustain our democracy? Do we want citizens prepared to ask questions or just to answer questions posed by authorities?

We must stop the trash talk about our public schools and dedicate ourselves to making every one of them a school that is just right for all our children. Yes, it will cost more, but ignorance and neglect are much more expensive.

The full speech is available at Save Our Schools US.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a former US Assistant Secretary of Education under President George Bush Snr. She is author of the best selling book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

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